EPA science advisors set to challenge Trump on auto emissions

Experts are worried the rollback runs counter to the agency's own findings.

SAUSALITO, CA - MAY 01:  Traffic backs as it travels northbound on the Golden Gate Bridge on May 1, 2018 in Sausalito, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
SAUSALITO, CA - MAY 01: Traffic backs as it travels northbound on the Golden Gate Bridge on May 1, 2018 in Sausalito, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Science advisors for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could vote to review the agency’s reasoning for rolling back automobile efficiency requirements as early as this week amid internal concerns that such a rollback runs counter to EPA findings. That move would serve as an internal rebuke to the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to relax Obama-era climate efforts.

An eight-member working group within the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) has indicated it will rebuke the agency over several recent environmental decisions, including a conclusion that auto efficiency standards introduced under President Obama’s administration are too stringent.

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In a May 18 memo, Alison Cullen, chair of the SAB Work Group on EPA Planned Actions for SAB Consideration of the Underlying Science, wrote that the working group wants the broader 44-member SAB to assess that decision.

“The Chartered SAB will discuss whether to review the adequacy of the science supporting planned regulatory actions” at its May 31, 2018 meeting, she wrote.

The memo goes on to highlight that the EPA’s conclusion in April that emissions standards were too stringent seems to have failed to weigh the public health and climate change implications that such a rollback could spur. Moreover, the working group said, a lack of peer review and the rushed nature of such decisions is cause for concern, especially in light of pre-existing EPA findings on the impact of carbon dioxide emissions.

“The SAB made several of these recommendations [to revisit the decision] in previous reviews, as well as noting a trend toward less information being made available for actions listed in the Regulatory Agenda,” the memo reads, going on to request the EPA “provide more complete information to support future SAB decisions about the adequacy of the science supporting actions in future regulatory agendas.”

The EPA, however, has downplayed the memo’s observations.

“EPA’s Science Advisory Board plays an important role in informing EPA actions on policy and regulatory matters,” Lincoln Ferguson, an EPA spokesman, told Bloomberg via email. “We value the board’s expertise, and we welcome feedback from the chartered panel on areas in which they are interested in getting additional scientific information that is relevant to the rulemaking process.”

The SAB is set to meet Thursday, at which point the board will decide whether to take up the review.

The memo is the latest indicator that President Trump’s ongoing rollback of numerous Obama-era initiatives is being met with resistance internally as well as externally. The White House has already targeted a number of efforts, including the Clean Power Plan and checks on greenhouse gas emissions.

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The EPA announced its plans to revise tailpipe emissions standards on April 2, opening up a process with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop replacement rules.

That paved the way for a head-on confrontation between automakers and environmentalists, as well as the state of California, which has worked to crack down on emissions. Shortly after the announcement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he would sue the Trump administration over the decision, which experts have said will likely increase greenhouse gases. At least 16 states and the District of Columbia have joined the suit.

The role of the SAB itself in questioning the EPA decision is notable. One of 22 EPA advisory boards, the SAB is meant to be composed of independent scientists and experts with some measure of distance from partisan politics. But under the leadership of Pruitt, such lines have become increasingly blurred.

In October, Pruitt — who is currently the subject of more than a dozen federal investigations — overhauled the EPA’s advisory boards more broadly, replacing respected academics and scientists with industry insiders. The SAB memo calling for a review of the emissions rollback, however, indicates that the working group remains willing to challenge the White House on policy issues.

Despite facing internal opposition to the decision to ease car emissions standards, the EPA will still have support against California and the other states suing the Trump administration. On Friday, major automaker trade groups filed to back the EPA in its efforts, according to Bloomberg. Both the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers have asked for leave to intervene in the case in support of the Trump administration.